A scrambled alphabet of the public sector planetary system

Colin James’s comments on panel at IPANZ young professionals conference, 5 June 2008

I shall start with…

1. The i-world

This is the world of i-Pods and i-Phones and all sorts of i-linkages, the internet world. It is an instant world, inhabited by avatars and holographs, a way of being without being, doing without doing.

This is a world that was not imagined 20 years ago and contains within it the genesis of a world 20 years hence that is not imagined now.

These new ways of connecting and interacting are changing public expectations and changing the balance of information. Once mandarins ran the public service, grandees of experience and secret knowledge. Can there be mandarins in the i-world?

The i-world is the world of Facebook, Bibo, interactive websites, social networks in the ether. That is, the i-world is…

2. The n-world

This is the world of networks, not organisations, multi-choice, not hierarchies.

In politics, it has, in the United States, changed presidential campaigning: Obama raised an army of three-quarters of a million multi-linked supporters and activists (in 8000 “affinity groups”) and a huge campaign fund through internet-based networking.

There are small signs of this here, in the Labour and Green parties but there is a long way to go to do what he has done — bewilder and beat the machine.

It will change politics here. It creates the potential for new sorts of mass parties or movements and a new sort of presidential prime minister.

And it will change the public service, to one less locked into function and more geared to challenges and outcomes — that is, e-groups and virtual teams that in the mid-1990s seemed to me an obvious replacement for committees and pyramids.

But you are “young professionals” — you know this e-world. You are from the …

3. The xy-world

This is the world of the generations now in the majority in the voting public, who expect their products and services and workplaces and relationships customised. And you are just ahead of the z-world, which is incalculable — and the aa-world to follow.

This raises issues about policy discussed by Ian Pool, that it focuses too much on the past, the goers, and not on the comers, the future.

If the state is to be credible/respected/valid, it will need to be much more flexible than it has been. It will need to share the generation of ideas and the delivery of services better with NGOs/community organisations/private sector.

The baby-boomers, arthritically stumping into their 60s, can’t do the thinking for that. They adjust the past rather than anticipate the future. I suspect that also goes for the older x-ers like Key and English in politics and those in the higher ranks of the public sector.

And the state and its public servants will have to make this adjustment while living with the slings and arrows of…

4. The b-world

This is the world of bullying politicians whose whims you must serve, never more so than when a government knows itself to be in trouble with voters and whose members must somehow protect their only assets, their egos.

Some discomforting tales are emerging of the way the current cabinet is treating its loyal servants. I don’t envy you the next four months.

Moreover, you must live in…

5. The c-world

This is the world of complexity. Over the past 40 years we have assumed the state can solve more and more complicated riddles that deny us the perfect society.

I used to marvel in the late 1990s that the state, under a supposedly conservative government, perhaps because of its conservative values, had decided it could “break the cycle” of dysfunction in families, could fix families up. But can it? Or can it only deal with some symptoms, soothe some fevers?

That is a question for you. The tempting answer in the rising libertarian ideologies of the 1980s was to retreat to individualism in the face of defeat for the state � to say it can’t be done and therefore shouldn’t be attempted because it diverted energy from activities than can be done.

That temptation in the end proved chimerical. Voters want complexity conquered. Good luck to you.

How will you, the rising young professionals, resolve a policy position on climate change, for example? Public servants alone cannot do that, especially with nervy politicians throwing rocks, grenades, paddies, rhetoric. There are far too many variables for AN answer or even a plausible set of answers. There is just a “best-we-can-do-in-the-circumstances” answer which is not an answer at all, just a holding ploy.

It doesn’t help that you must tackle these tasks in…

6. The s-world

This is the world of limited resources. As the globalisation of talent limits fiscal room for manoeuvre, politicians will be stingier than over the past nine years, perhaps the last throw of the whiggish early-1970s social democratic dice. More from less, results and accountability, will be the catchcries.

That mention of the globalisation of talents brings us to…

7. The o-world

This is the outside world, which sets a lot of our policy questions and boundaries.

We are seeing it in microcosm in inflation now. Alan Bollard is powerless in the face of externally driven price rises. He can affect only internal demand and he would have to drive internal demand into sharp reverse to offset the imported price rises. This may lead to a change in monetary policy, so that we live with imported inflation and lean only against domestic inflation. [Of course, domestic inflation has been the problem until recently].

But there is much, much more. The huge issues of water, fuels and minerals, climate change and mass migration will force changes in the way nations interact — including our interaction with other nations and including our own choices about our internal social, economic, environmental and cultural orders.

What other nations — and companies and consumers and organisations — do and the outcome of those actions will set parameters to our responses.

Within that o-world there is…

8. The capital-C-world

This is the China world we will live in. We will also live in a capital-I (for India) world. For 500 years the ideas that have driven science and shaped social and political organisation have come from Europe and more lately North America. Increasingly, our ideas will come from Asia. That will require nimble responses. Are you young professionals up to that?

Closer to home and more immediately pressing is…

9. The capital-A-world

This is the world of Australia, the middle east of minerals, the vacuum cleaner sucking up our talent. We are an economic state of Australasia which requires a single economic market and many other congruences of policy.

You will have your work cut adjusting that relationship.

And in our interactions with the o-world the capital-C-and-I-worlds and the capital-A-world, we will still need to attend to…

10. The capital-T-world

This is the Treaty of Waitangi world. We have changed our society, made it bicultural. That has been a rights issue. The challenge now, as it has been for this decade and as is gradually gaining weight inside Maoridom, is to morph the capital-T-world into the d-world, refocusing on development — managing iwi assets to build iwi into powerful commercial vehicles, getting young Maori imbued with strong aspirations, getting them well-fed, getting them educated, getting them into jobs.

That is no small challenge.

But to come back to the near-future, I will finish with a reference to…

11. The e-world

This is not to come full circle back to the i-world. I am talking of the election.

The odds lie with a National-led government.

That will not, if it comes to pass, be a huge wrench because there is no enthusiasm, either in the electorate or in the National party, for a rerun of libertarian radicalism. This is the age of the “new conservative” coupled with a new liberalism.

So spending constraints would be mild by 1991 “mother of all Budgets” standards, focused on “effectiveness” and suspicious of policy analysts, “bureaucrats” and “consultants”. A major criterion for spending decisions would be the economic return. Form would follow functions and functions would be redefined and reprioritised, with staff reallocated over time from less “effective” functions to more effective ones. Overall numbers would be reduced by attrition. There would be more contracting out to the private sector of delivery and more PPPs and higher debt funding faster infrastructure development.

Given that the government, however constituted, will be constrained by the economic downturn there will be competing objectives in the short term: not to compound the downturn by excessive cuts in spending; but nevertheless to lift the economic return on government spending.

And there will be small-party influence. How many small parties will be able to exert influence would depend (a) on the lead party’s vote and (b) on its perception of the need for a broad-based government with an eye to future arrangements after the 2011 election.

In behind all this is a change of political generation, about which I can say more in question-time, from a generation whose political awareness and ideas were forged against a backdrop of the Vietnam war, Springbok tours and anti-apartheid, the rise of environmentalism and feminism and the anti-nuclear stance to a generation whose political awareness and ideas were forged against a backdrop of globalisation, mass migration, the internet and bicultural society This is going on inside both major parties and would influence the responses of a re-elected Labour government.